Tag Archives: Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi

Things You Didn’t Know About the Talmud

Judaism is famously built upon an “oral tradition”, or Oral Torah, that goes along with the Written Torah. The primary body of the Oral Torah is the Talmud. At the end of this week’s parasha, Mishpatim, the Torah states:

And Hashem said to Moses: “Ascend to Me on the mountain and be there, and I will give you the Tablets of Stone, and the Torah, and the mitzvah that I have written, that you may teach them…

The Talmud (Berakhot 5a) comments on this that the “Tablets” refers to the Ten Commandments, the “Torah” refers to the Five Books of Moses, the “mitzvah” is the Mishnah, “that I have written” are the books of the Prophets and Holy Writings, and “that you may teach them” is the Talmud. The Mishnah is the major corpus of ancient Jewish oral law, and the Talmud, or Gemara, is essentially a commentary on the Mishnah, with a deeper exposition and derivation of its laws. Today, the Mishnah is printed together with the corresponding Gemara, along with multiple super-commentaries laid out all around the page, and this whole is typically referred to as “Talmud”.

Anatomy of a page of Talmud: (A) Mishnah, (B) Gemara, (C) Commentary of Rashi, Rabbi Shlomo Itzchaki, 1040-1105, (D) Tosfot, a series of commentators following Rashi, (E) various additional commentaries around the edge of the page.

Last week, we wrote how many have rejected the Talmud, starting with the ancient Sadducees, later the Karaites (whom some consider to be the spiritual descendants of the Sadducees), as well as the Samaritans, and many modern-day Jews whether secular or Reform. Such groups claim that either there was never such a thing as an “oral tradition” or “oral law”, or that the tradition is entirely man-made with no divine basis. Meanwhile, even in the Orthodox Jewish world there are those who are not quite sure what the Talmud truly is, and how its teachings should be regarded. It is therefore essential to explore the origins, development, importance, and necessity of the Talmud.

An Oral Torah

There are many ways to prove that there must be an oral tradition or Oral Torah. From the very beginning, we read in the Written Torah how God forged a covenant with Abraham, which passed down to Isaac, then Jacob, and so on. There is no mention of the patriarchs having any written text. These were oral teachings being passed down from one generation to the next.

Later, the Written Torah was given through the hand of Moses, yet many of its precepts are unclear. Numerous others do not seem to be relevant for all generations, and others still appear quite distasteful if taken literally. We have already written in the past that God did not intend for us to simply observe Torah law blindly and unquestioningly. Rather, we are meant to toil in its words and extract its true meanings, evolve with it, and bring the Torah itself to life. The Torah is not a reference manual that sits on a shelf. It is likened to a living, breathing entity; a “tree of life for those who grasp it” (Proverbs 3:18).

Indeed, this is what Joshua commanded the nation: “This Torah shall not leave your mouth, and you shall meditate upon it day and night, so that you may observe to do like all that is written within it” (Joshua 1:8). Joshua did not say that we must literally observe all that is written in it (et kol hakatuv bo), but rather k’khol hakatuv bo, “like all that is written”, or similar to what is written there. We are not meant to simply memorize its laws and live by them, but rather to continuously discuss and debate the Torah, and meditate upon it day and night to derive fresh lessons from it.

Similarly, Exodus 34:27 states that “God said to Moses: ‘Write for yourself these words, for according to these words I have made a covenant with you and with Israel.’” Firstly, God told Moses to write the Torah for yourself, and would later remind that lo b’shamayim hi, the Torah “is not in Heaven” (Deuteronomy 30:12). It was given to us, for us to dwell upon and develop. Secondly, while the words above are translated as “according to these words”, the Hebrew is al pi hadevarim, literally “on the mouth”, which the Talmud says is a clear allusion to the Torah sh’be’al peh, the Oral Torah, literally “the Torah that is on the mouth”.

The Mishnah

2000-year old tefillin discovered in Qumran

It is evident that by the start of the Common Era, Jews living in the Holy Land observed a wide array of customs and laws which were not explicitly mentioned in the Torah, or at least not explained in the Torah. For example, tefillin was quite common, and they have been found in the Qumran caves alongside the Dead Sea Scrolls (produced by a fringe Jewish group, likely the Essenes) and are even mentioned in the “New Testament”. Yet, while the Torah mentions binding something upon one’s arm and between one’s eyes four times, it does not say what these things are or what they look like. Naturally, the Sadducees (like the Karaites) did not wear tefillin, and understood the verses metaphorically. At the same time, though, the Sadducees (and the Karaites and Samaritans) did have mezuzot. Paradoxically, they took one verse in the passage literally (Deuteronomy 6:9), but the adjoining verse in the same passage (Deuteronomy 6:8) metaphorically!

This is just one example of many. The reality is that an oral tradition outside of the Written Law is absolutely vital to Judaism. Indeed, most of those anti-oral law groups still do have oral traditions and customs of their own, just not to the same extent and authority of the Talmud.

Regardless, after the massive devastation wrought by the Romans upon Israel during the 1st and 2nd centuries CE, many rabbis felt that the Oral Torah must be written down or else it might be lost. After the Bar Kochva Revolt (132-136 CE), the Talmud suggests there were less than a dozen genuine rabbis left in Israel. Judaism had to be rebuilt from the ashes. Shortly after, as soon as an opportunity presented itself, Rabbi Yehuda haNasi (who was very wealthy and well-connected) was able to put the Oral Torah into writing, likely with the assistance of fellow rabbis. The result is what is known as the Mishnah, and it was completed by about 200 CE.

The Mishnah is organized into six orders, which are further divided up into tractates. Zera’im (“Seeds”) is the first order, with 11 tractates mainly concerned with agricultural laws; followed by Mo’ed (holidays) with 12 tractates discussing Shabbat and festivals; Nashim (“Women”) with 7 tractates focusing on marriage; Nezikin (“Damages”) with 10 tractates of judicial and tort laws; Kodashim (holy things) with 11 tractates on ritual laws and offerings; and Tehorot (purities) with 12 tractates on cleanliness and ritual purity.

The root of the word “Mishnah” means to repeat, as it had been learned by recitation and repetition to commit the law to memory. Some have pointed out that Rabbi Yehuda haNasi may have used earlier Mishnahs compiled by Rabbi Akiva and one of his five remaining students, Rabbi Meir, who lived in the most difficult times of Roman persecution. Considering the circumstances of its composition, the Mishnah was written in short, terse language, with little to no explanation. It essentially presents only a set of laws, usually with multiple opinions on how each law should be fulfilled. To explain how the laws were derived from the Written Torah, and which opinions should be given precedence, another layer of text was necessary.

The Gemara

Rav Ashi teaching at the Sura Academy – a depiction from the Diaspora Museum in Tel Aviv

Gemara, from the Aramaic gamar, “to study” (like the Hebrew talmud), is that text which makes sense of the Mishnah. (Thus, Gemara may also be from the Hebrew ligmor, “to complete”, as it completes the Mishnah.) It was composed over the next three centuries, in two locations. Rabbis in the Holy Land produced the Talmud Yerushalmi, also known as the Jerusalem or Palestinian Talmud, while the Sages residing in Persia (centred in the former Babylonian territories) produced the Talmud Bavli, or the Babylonian Talmud. The Yerushalmi was unable to be completed as the persecutions in Israel reached their peak and the scholars could no longer continue their work. The Bavli was completed around 500, and its final composition is attributed to Ravina (Rav Avina bar Rav Huna), who concluded the process started by Rav Ashi (c. 352-427 CE) two generations earlier.

While incomplete, the Yerushalmi also has much more information on the agricultural laws, which were pertinent to those still living in Israel. In Persia, and for the majority of Jews living in the Diaspora, those agricultural laws were no longer relevant, so the Bavli does not have Gemaras on these Mishnaic tractates. Because the Yerushalmi was incomplete, and because it also discussed laws no longer necessary for most Jews, and because the Yerushalmi community was disbanded, it was ultimately the Talmud Bavli that became the dominant Gemara for the Jewish world. To this day, the Yerushalmi is generally only studied by those who already have a wide grasp of the Bavli.

The Talmud is far more than just an exposition on the Mishnah. It has both halachic (legal) and aggadic (literary or allegorical) aspects; contains discussions on ethics, history, mythology, prophecy, and mysticism; and speaks of other nations and religions, science, philosophy, economics, and just about everything else. It is a massive repository of wisdom, with a total of 2,711 double-sided pages (which is why the tractates are cited with a page number and side, for example Berakhot 2a or Shabbat 32b). This typically translates to about 6,200 normal pages in standard print format.

Placing the Talmud

With so much information, it is easy to see why the Talmud went on to take such priority in Judaism. The Written Torah (the Tanakh as a whole) is quite short in comparison, and can be learned more quickly. It is important to remember that the Talmud did not replace the Tanakh, as many wrongly claim. The following graphic beautifully illustrates all of the Talmud’s citations to the Tanakh, and how the two are inseparable:

(Credit: Sefaria.org) It is said of the Vilna Gaon (Rabbi Eliyahu Kramer, 1720-1797) that past a certain age he only studied Tanakh, as he knew how to derive all of Judaism, including all of the Talmud, from it.

Indeed, it is difficult to properly grasp the entire Tanakh (which has its own host of apparent contradictions and perplexing passages) without the commentary of the Talmud. Once again, it is the Talmud that brings the Tanakh to life.

Misunderstanding this, Jews have been accused in the past of abandoning Scripture in favour of the Talmud. This was a popular accusation among Christians in Europe. It is not without a grain of truth, for Ashkenazi Jews did tend to focus on Talmudic studies and less on other aspects of Judaism, Tanakh included. Meanwhile, the Sephardic Jewish world was known to be a bit better-rounded, incorporating more scriptural, halachic, and philosophical study. Sephardic communities also tended to be more interested in mysticism, producing the bulk of early Kabbalistic literature. Ashkenazi communities eventually followed suit.

Ironically, so did many Christian groups, which eagerly embraced Jewish mysticism. Christian Knorr von Rosenroth (1636-1689) translated portions of the Zohar and Arizal into Latin, publishing the best-selling Kabbalah Denudata. Long before him, the Renaissance philosopher Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494), one of Michelangelo’s teachers, styled himself a “Christian Kabbalist”, as did the renowned scholar Johann Reuchlin (1455-1522). Meanwhile, Isaac Newton’s copy of the Zohar can be still found at Cambridge University. It is all the more ironic because Kabbalah itself is based on Talmudic principles, as derived from the Tanakh. For example, the central Kabbalistic concept of the Ten Sefirot is first mentioned in the Talmudic tractate of Chagigah (see page 12a), which also outlines the structure of the Heavenly realms. The Talmud is first to speak of the mystical study of Ma’aseh Beresheet (“Mysteries of Creation”) and Ma’aseh Merkavah (“Mysteries of the Divine Chariot”), of Sefer Yetzirah, of spiritual ascent, of how angels operate, and the mechanics of souls.

Having said all that, the Talmud is far from easy to navigate. While it contains vast riches of profound wisdom and divine information, it also has much that appears superfluous and sometimes outright boring. In fact, the Talmud (Sanhedrin 24a) itself admits that it is not called Talmud Bavli because it was composed in Babylon (since it really wasn’t) but because it is so mebulbal, “confused”, the root of Bavli, or Babel.

Of course, the Written Torah, too, at times appears superfluous, boring, or confused. The Midrash (another component of the Oral Torah) explains why: had the Torah been given in the correct order, with clear language, then anyone who read it would be “able to raise the dead and work miracles” (see Midrash Tehillim 3). The Torah—both Written and Oral—is put together in such a way that mastering it requires a lifetime of study, contemplation, and meditation. One must, as the sage Ben Bag Bag said (Avot 5:21), “turn it and turn it, for everything is in it; see through it, grow old with it, do not budge from it, for there is nothing better than it.”

Defending the Talmud

There is one more accusation commonly directed at the Talmud. This is that the Talmud contains racist or xenophobic language, or perhaps immoral directives, or that it has many flaws and inaccuracies, or that it contains demonology and sorcery. Putting aside deliberate mistranslations and lies (which the internet is full), the truth is that, taken out of context, certain rare passages in the vastness of the Talmud may be read that way. Again, the same is true for the Written Torah itself, where Scripture also speaks of demons and sorcery, has occasional xenophobic overtones, apparent contradictions, or directives that we today recognize as immoral.

First of all, it is important that things are kept in their historical and textual context. Secondly, it is just as important to remember that the Talmud is not the code of Jewish law. (That would be the Shulchan Arukh, and others.) The Talmud presents many opinions, including non-Jewish sayings of various Roman figures, Greek philosophers, and Persian magi. Just because there is a certain strange statement in the Talmud does not mean that its origin is Jewish, and certainly does not mean that Jews necessarily subscribe to it. Even on matters of Jewish law and custom, multiple opinions are presented, most of which are ultimately rejected. The Talmud’s debates are like a transcript of a search for truth. False ideas will be encountered along the way. The Talmud presents them to us so that we can be aware of them, and learn from them.

And yes, there are certain things in the Talmud—which are not based on the Torah itself—that may have become outdated and disproven. This is particularly the case with the Talmud’s scientific and medical knowledge. While much of this has incredibly stood the test of time and has been confirmed correct by modern science, there are others which we know today are inaccurate. This isn’t a new revelation. Long ago, Rav Sherira Gaon (c. 906-1006) stated that the Talmudic sages were not doctors, nor were they deriving medical remedies from the Torah. They were simply giving advice that was current at the time. The Rambam held the same (including Talmudic astronomy and mathematics under this category, see Moreh Nevuchim III, 14), as well as the Magen Avraham (Rabbi Avraham Gombiner, c. 1635-1682, on Orach Chaim 173:1) and Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch. One of the major medieval commentaries on the Talmud, Tosfot, admits that nature changes over time, which is why the Talmud’s science and medicine may not be accurate anymore. Nonetheless, there are those who maintain that we simply do not understand the Talmud properly—and this is probably true as well.

Whatever the case, the Talmud is an inseparable part of the Torah, and an integral aspect of Judaism. Possibly the greatest proof of its significance and divine nature is that it has kept the Jewish people alive and flourishing throughout the difficult centuries, while those who rejected the Oral Torah have mostly faded away. The Talmud remains among the most enigmatic texts of all time, and perhaps it is this mystique that brings some people to fear it. Thankfully, knowledge of the Talmud is growing around the world, and more people than ever before are taking an interest in, and benefitting from, its ancient wisdom.

A bestselling Korean book about the Talmud. Fascination with the Talmud is particularly strong in the Far East. A Japanese book subtitled “Secrets of the Talmud Scriptures” (written by Rabbi Marvin Tokayer in 1971) sold over half a million copies in that country, and was soon exported to China and South Korea. More recently, a Korean reverend founded the “Shema Education Institute” and published a six-volume set of “Korean Talmud”, with plans to translate it into Chinese and Hindi. A simplified “Talmud” digest book became a bestseller, leading Korea’s ambassador to Israel to declare in 2011 that every Korean home has one. With the Winter Olympics coming up in Korea, it is appropriate to mention that Korean star speed skater Lee Kyou-Hyuk said several years ago: “I read the Talmud every time I am going through a hard time. It helps to calm my mind.”

 

Is the Lubavitcher Rebbe Mashiach?

Today is the third of Tammuz, the yahrzeit of Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, better known as the Lubavitcher Rebbe. There is no doubt that the Rebbe was among the greatest sages of the last century (if not of all time). From the moment he took up the leadership of Chabad, the Rebbe began to make waves in the Jewish world, and quickly transformed Lubavitch into an international powerhouse. Today, Chabad finds itself in 81 countries, operating 3500 institutions.

The Rebbe himself inspired countless souls, both Jewish and non-Jewish. One of the latter was Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm (the first black woman in Congress). When Chisholm was first elected to the House of Representatives, she met fierce opposition and outright racism. Shortly after, she received a call from the Rebbe, who quelled her concerns and offered her advice on how to make the most of her situation. Chisholm went on to create programs that benefited millions of poor people, including the expansion of food stamps across the US. At her retirement breakfast, she said: “If poor babies have milk and poor children have food, it’s because this rabbi in Crown Heights had vision.”

With such vision, along with tremendous wisdom, righteousness, and charisma, it isn’t very surprising that a messianic movement would develop around the Rebbe. Despite the fact that he passed away in 1994, many within the Chabad movement continue to believe that he is Mashiach. Is there substance to this belief?

Mashiach Resurrected

One of the major arguments used by the so-called Mashichistim is a verse in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 98b) that states Mashiach can come from “among the living” or from “among the dead”. The Talmud states that if Mashiach is of the living, it would certainly be Rabbi Yehuda haNasi (who was also called, simply, Rebbi), the great compiler of the Mishnah; if of the dead, it would be the Biblical Daniel. Within Chabad, this passage is used to support the fact that despite the Rebbe’s passing, he may still return to be the messiah.

However, other texts state that Mashiach cannot be from the dead. For example, Midrash Rabbah (on Genesis 49:18) writes how Jacob saw a vision of Samson—who had the potential to be Mashiach—but when Jacob saw Samson’s death, he was saddened that Samson wouldn’t be the messiah and said, “I await Your salvation, Hashem!”

Some believe the Rebbe is not really dead (besides, if Mashiach is from “among the dead”, the Talmud already told us it would be Daniel!) but he is only “concealed”. Multiple Jewish sources state that Mashiach will come, then disappear for a certain amount of time, and then return again. For example, Midrash Rabbah (on Numbers 11:3), writes:

Just like the first redeemer, Moses, revealed himself to the Jews and then concealed himself… similarly, the final redeemer will reveal himself, then conceal himself… and then return and reveal himself again.

Thus, the Rebbe is said to only be “hidden”, and will imminently return. Of course, this isn’t very different from the Christian belief in Jesus’ “second coming”. Christians have been waiting eagerly for two millennia—much like Chabad has been waiting eagerly for two decades.

In reality, when ancient Jewish sources speak of Mashiach’s concealment and return, they do not mean that Mashiach will disappear for millennia, or even decades. The Midrash cited above itself says that Moses was hidden from the Israelites for three months, and Mashiach would be hidden for only 45 days. Though there are other opinions, the lengthiest is three years (based on Isaac disappearing from the Torah narrative for three years following the Akedah). And so, the potential for the Rebbe being Mashiach appears to have long expired.

The Rebbe on Being Mashiach

One of the things that the Rebbe was adamant about was studying and following the teachings of the Rambam. The Rambam makes it clear who Mashiach is: a Jewish leader who, among other things, successfully reunites the entire nation in Israel (ending the exile), defeats the nation’s enemies, and rebuilds the Temple in Jerusalem. Only one who has successfully accomplished these tasks can be titled “Mashiach”. The Rambam writes that if a person was on his way to fulfilling these, but died in the process, he is clearly not the messiah. The Rambam brings Shimon bar Kochva as an example. Although Bar Kochva was able to push the Romans out of Israel, reclaim the Temple Mount and start rebuilding the Temple, and was even proclaimed the messiah by Rabbi Akiva, he died and his messianic potential died with him.

In one of his talks, the Rebbe himself stated that one is only confirmed to be Mashiach when the Third Temple is built. Obviously, since the Rebbe did not build the Third Temple in his lifetime, he cannot be the messiah. If it turns out that the Rebbe does return somehow in the future, and accomplishes all the messianic tasks, then and only then can he be titled “Mashiach”. To do so now is premature and naïve, if not altogether wrong.

In fact, the Rebbe constantly made clear that he is not Mashiach. In his monumental biography of the Rebbe, Joseph Telushkin devotes a chapter to this question, and writes:

In 1965, Rabbi Avraham Parizh, an elder Chasid who had been with the movement from the time of the Fifth Rebbe, printed letters stating: “With great joy, we can inform you that King Messiah, for whom we have waited so many years, is already among us. He is the holy Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the King Messiah. His address is 770 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn, New York. He does not need us to choose him since God has chosen him.” Rabbi Parizh printed up many of these letters and started handing them out in Israel. According to one account, Parizh also distributed these letters by dropping them out of a helicopter.

When the Rebbe learned of the letter, he instructed his secretariat to immediately dispatch a telegram to Parizh, dated June 24, 1965: “We were shocked by the letter [you wrote and handed out] and ask that you immediately cease distributing it. Gather and send to the secretariat all copies of the letter, every last one, and please confirm immediately that you have fulfilled this instruction.” Chasidim tell how Parizh spent several weeks scrounging around the streets of Tel Aviv looking for every such sheet he could find…

In 1991, Rabbi Aharon Dov Halprin, the editor of Chabad’s Israeli magazine, Kfar Chabad, wanted to print an article explaining why the Rebbe was worthy of being considered the presumed Messiah. When the Rebbe learned of this he responded sharply, “If you, God forbid, [plan to write] anything even remotely similar, it is preferable that you shut down the periodical completely.”

In an urgent audience to which the Rebbe summoned Chabad activist Rabbi Tuvia Peles, the Rebbe rebuked those who were making Messianic claims about him, saying, “They are taking a knife to my heart” and “they are tearing off parts of me.”

… Some months later, and shortly before the Rebbe’s stroke, the Alaska-based shliach, Rabbi Yosef Greenberg (author of Y’mei Bereishit), brought a letter to be given to the Rebbe in which he referred to him as “King Messiah”. Later that same day, Rabbi Groner told Greenberg that the Rebbe had looked at the letter, thrown it down in frustration, and then wrote on it, “Tell him that when the Moshiach comes, I will give him the letter.”

An even more definitive statement of the Rebbe on this same issue occurred at around the same time. An Israeli journalist, Sarah Davidowitz of the Kol Ha’ir newspaper, approached the Rebbe and said, “We appreciate you very much, we want to see you in Israel; you said soon you will be in Israel, so when will you come?” The Rebbe responded: “That depends on the Moshiach, not on me.” The journalist persisted, “You are the Moshiach!,” to which the Rebbe responded: “I am not”.

In light of this, to call the Rebbe “Mashiach” is highly inappropriate, and against his own wishes. More dangerously, it risks turning Chabad into a religion of its own. After all, Christianity developed in the very same way; in its first decades, it was nearly indistinguishable from Judaism, and was followed almost entirely by Jews. It took a couple of centuries before the divide between Judaism and Christianity was complete, and by that point, Jesus had become a God-like figure.

The same may very well happen with the Rebbe and Chabad in coming decades. Already, there are elements within Chabad who have taken to equating the Rebbe with some kind of god on Earth. Many in Chabad still write letters to the Rebbe, adorn their homes with countless images and elaborate paintings of him, and read out the Rebbe’s letters at important public events (while everyone is asked to rise in honour of the Rebbe’s “presence”, of course). It isn’t uncommon to see children saluting the Rebbe’s empty chair at 770, while worshippers ecstatically chant “long live our master, teacher, and rabbi, the king Mashiach” (see video here). If Chabad’s leaders do not rein in such activity soon, there is little doubt Lubavitch will morph into a religion of its own. And for the Rebbe—who worked so tirelessly to unite all Jews—that would be a most devastating legacy.

How Jewish History Confirms God’s Promise to Abraham

Abraham's Journey to Canaan, by Jozsef Molnar (1850)

Abraham’s Journey to Canaan, by Jozsef Molnar (1850)

Lech Lecha begins with God’s famous command to Abraham to leave the comforts of his home and journey forth to a new beginning in the Holy Land. God promises Abraham (at that point still known as “Abram”) that he will become a great nation, and that God will “bless those who bless you, and the ones who curse you I will curse” (Genesis 12:3). God’s covenant with Abraham passed down to his son Isaac, and then to Isaac’s son Jacob, who fathered twelve sons that became the twelve tribes of Israel. God confirmed his promise to the twelve tribes through the prophet Bilaam, who saw “Israel dwelling tribe by tribe, and the spirit of God came upon him” and he famously remarked, “how goodly are your tents, oh Jacob, your dwellings, oh Israel!” before prophesying that “blessed be those who bless you, and cursed be those who curse you.” (Numbers 24:2-9)

Over three millennia have passed since that time, and as we look back though history, we can see how accurately this prediction has been realized. It began with the twelve sons of Jacob, whom the Ancient Egyptians welcomed to their land and initially treated exceedingly well (thanks to Joseph, who saved Egypt from seven years of extreme famine, and then made the kingdom very rich). As time went on, the Israelites multiplied and prospered in Egypt. In a pattern that would repeat itself countless times throughout history, the natives started to become a little weary (and jealous) of the foreigners. Israel was soon subjugated and enslaved. This brought God’s plagues upon Egypt, and the empire was destroyed. Ancient Egypt’s decline steadily continued from that point, and it would never restore its former glory.

Historians recognize three great ages within Ancient Egypt’s past; the last “golden age” was in the New Kingdom period (1549-1069 BCE), approximately when the Israelites would have been dwelling there. Once Israel left, Egypt’s greatness would soon evaporate, and it would be nothing more than a vassal for the rest of its history – to Assyria, Babylonia, Persia, Greece, and Rome.

Cyrus the Great

Cyrus the Great

The next major oppressors of Israel were the Assyrians, who destroyed the northern Israelite Kingdom and exiled its tribes. It wasn’t long before the Babylonians overtook the Assyrians. Once the Babylonians themselves destroyed the southern Kingdom of Judah (and the Holy Temple), their own fate was sealed, and it was just 70 years before the Persians took over. The Persian emperor Cyrus treated the Jews very well, allowing them to return to Israel and rebuild the Temple. He was so good that he is described in the Tanakh as God’s anointed – mashiach! (Isaiah 45:1)

When Persian attitudes towards Israel started to turn sour, the Greeks under Alexander the Great quickly became the new rulers. Jews and Hellenists enjoyed very good relations for some two centuries. In the 2nd century BCE, the Seleucids (Syrian-Greeks) attempted to totally assimilate the Jews into their culture. They failed miserably – as celebrated during Chanukah – and soon disappeared from history, being overtaken by the Romans from the West and the Parthians from the East.

Ancient Empires, clockwise from top left: Assyrian Empire (with deportations of Israelites), Babylonian Empire at its height, the Persian Empire under Cyrus and his Achaemenid dynasty, empire of Alexander the Macedonian (Alexander the Great)

Ancient Empires, clockwise from top left: Assyrian Empire (with deportations of Israelites); Babylonian Empire at its height; the Persian Empire under Cyrus and his Achaemenid dynasty; empire of Alexander the Macedonian (Alexander the Great)

Relations with Rome were good, too, at first. During this time, Rome experienced its own golden age, beginning with the emperor Augustus. Unfortunately, Rome was soon busy quelling the province of Judea and destroying the Second Temple in Jerusalem. At the very same time, Rome was thrust into a difficult period of civil war. In the same year that the Temple was destroyed, Rome had its “Year of Four Emperors”.

Coins minted by Bar Kochva

Coins minted by Bar Kochva

In 132-135 CE, Rome and Israel were at war again, with the latter lead by Shimon Bar Kochva. After mounting an impressive resistance, Bar Kochva’s rebellion was put down. Just 45 years later, Rome enjoyed the last of its “Five Good Emperors” (Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, who some identify with the Talmud’s “Antoninus”, the close friend of Rabbi Yehuda haNasi). Marcus Aurelius’ successor, Commodus, was a madman who ushered in Rome’s slow decline (as depicted pseudo-historically in the film Gladiator). The ancient historian Dio Cassius marked the year 180 CE – when Commodus took power – as the point at which the Roman Empire began to change “from a kingdom of gold to one of rust and iron.”

Silver coins minted by Bahram V

Silver coins minted by Bahram V

Many of the Jews who fled the Roman Empire moved to the Sasanian (or Sassanid) Persian Empire. The Sasanians treated Jews remarkably well, and were in turn blessed with prosperity and riches. It was during this time, in the “Babylon” of the Sasanians, that the Talmud was compiled. Jews were granted semi-autonomy within the empire and had their own representative to the government, known as the Reish Galuta, or exilarch. Sasanian kings even married Jewish women, and one of the most famous of Sasanian kings, the legendary Bahram V (r. 421-438 CE), was the son of the Jewish princess Shushandukht. Unfortunately, his successor, Yazdegerd II (r. 438-457), started persecuting religious minorities within the empire and force-fed the state religion of Zoroastrianism. (Some say he was motivated to persecute Jews because of a prophecy that Mashiach would come on the 400th anniversary of the Temple’s destruction.)

Sasanian and Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empires before the rise of Islam

Sasanian and Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empires before the rise of Islam

At the beginning of the sixth century, a Zoroastrian priest named Mazdak gained a large following and created a new religious sect that even attracted the king, Kavadh I. This thrust the empire into all sorts of religious turmoil, within which the Reish Galuta, Mar Zutra II, led his own rebellion and managed to establish an independent Jewish city-state in Mahoza. This did not last long, as the king captured Mar Zutra and had him crucified. The office of the Reish Galuta was disbanded at this point. Not surprisingly, the Sasanian Empire wouldn’t last very long after this. The office of the Reish Galuta would soon be re-established by the invading Muslim Arabs, who completely overran the Sasanian Empire.

The same pattern then occurred with the Muslims themselves, who initially treated the Jews of their domain quite well. Jews welcomed the Arab conquerors and saw them as “liberators”. Over time, persecution of Jews became more common. In 1040, the last Reish Galuta (and last of the Gaonim, “geniuses”) Hezekiah, was tortured and killed, and the position of the exilarch was abolished permanently. Hezekiah’s sons fled to Spain, where the Muslim rulers were more tolerant.

As is well known, Jews in Spain experienced a “golden age” of their own during this time. But here, too, they would be victimized by the Muslim rulers. The Muslims were soon driven out of the peninsula by the Christian kingdoms. The expulsion of the Jews by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella followed shortly after.

Sultan Bayezid II

Sultan Bayezid II

A large majority of the Jews settled in the Ottoman Empire, where the Sultan Bayezid II welcomed them. In fact, with regards to this the Sultan said, “They tell me that Ferdinand of Spain is a wise man but he is a fool. For he takes his treasure and sends it all to me.” Assisted by the influx of Jews, the Ottoman Empire flourished. Meanwhile in Spain, Isabella died and Ferdinand was unable to hold onto the kingdom. It was soon taken over by the Austrian Habsburgs.

In 1656, Jews were permitted to return to England, and it wasn’t long before the British Empire became the greatest the world has ever known. A similar fate awaited the United States, where many Jews found refuge. (And were instrumental in its founding and success. In fact, one of the main financiers of the American Revolution was a Jew named Haym Solomon.) It isn’t difficult to understand why the Soviet Union lost the Cold War against the U.S. so quickly and so dramatically, as Russia and the USSR never had much tolerance for its Jews, while the United States was just about always a safe place for them.

fuguOf course, history is far more complex than the simple narrative presented above, and there are many factors in the rise and fall of empires. However, there is indeed a clear pattern: Where Jews are treated well, the state flourishes and prospers; when Jews are persecuted and expelled, the very same state rapidly declines. This pattern is so obvious that in the 1930s, the Japanese came up with their “Fugu Plan” to strengthen their empire by settling Jews within its lands!

In analyzing the pattern, some scholars see it in simply practical terms, as Jews would bring their wisdom and wealth, skills, expertise, and business acumen wherever they would go, and thus contribute immensely to the success of the places where they lived. Others see far more powerful spiritual reasons, propelled by Biblical prophecy. Whatever the case, history undeniably confirms God’s promise to Abraham and Israel: “I will bless those who bless you, and the ones who curse you I will curse.”

Why You Really (Really!) Shouldn’t Do Kapparot (Even With Money)

Tuesday evening marks the holy day of Yom Kippur. In the early morning hours before this, many Jews will seek to perform the custom of kapparot, which involves taking a live rooster (or chicken), swinging it over one’s head, and then having it slaughtered. In the process, the person states how the rooster will be their “atonement”, and while the rooster will die, the person will go on to live a good life. The rooster’s meat is typically donated. Others swing money over their heads instead of a rooster, and then donate the money to charity. Of course, this strange-sounding custom is not mentioned anywhere in the Torah or Talmud. In fact, throughout history many Jewish Sages tried hard to extinguish this custom, for a number of important reasons.

19th Century Lithograph of Kapparot

19th Century Lithograph of Kapparot

First of all, kapparot sounds much too similar to a korban, a sacrificial offering. In the days of the Temple, the kohanim sacrificed animals in order to atone for the people. The kapparot ritual explicitly states that the rooster serves as atonement, and the rooster is then killed. Despite some people’s claims that kapparot is not a true sacrifice, it clearly mimics the Temple’s sacrificial procedures, and intends to accomplish the same goal. The Mishnah Berurah (605:2) openly admits this, saying that kapparot is basically like a sacrifice. Indeed, an outsider would hardly be able to tell the difference. The problem is that the Torah forbids bringing sacrifices anywhere other than the place that God specifically designates (Deut. 12:5-6), which was the Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The Torah also commands that only kohanim are allowed to oversee sacrificial procedures. From this perspective alone, kapparot is contrary to the Torah.

Thirteen Years of Pain

Secondly, kapparot fits squarely under the category of unnecessary cruelty to animals. Commenting on the verse in Psalms (145:9) which states that God has mercy and compassion upon all of His creations, Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch wrote:

Here you are faced with God’s teaching which obliges you not only to refrain from inflicting unnecessary pain on any animal, but to help and, when you can, to lessen the pain whenever you see an animal suffering, even through no fault of yours.
(Horeb, Chapter 60, Section 416)

The Jewish Sages have always been concerned about animal welfare. The Talmud considers it a Torah mitzvah to treat animals with respect and prevent any harm to them (Bava Metzia 32b), so much so that one is allowed to violate various Shabbat prohibitions to help a suffering animal (Shabbat 128b). Let us not forget the story of Rabbi Yehuda HaNasi, who suffered excruciating pains for thirteen years. Why was he afflicted with such pain?

A calf was being taken to the slaughter when it broke away, hid its head under [Rabbi Yehuda’s] clothes, and lowed [in terror]. “Go”, he said, “for this you were created.” Thereupon it was said [in Heaven], “Since he has no pity, let us bring suffering upon him.”
(Bava Metzia 85a)

The great Rabbi Yehuda – the compiler of the Mishnah – made one uncompassionate remark to a fearful calf that was about to be slaughtered. For this, Heaven rained upon him tremendous pain – six years of kidney stones, and seven of scurvy, so unbearable that his cries could be heard over three miles away. When did his suffering end?

One day [Rabbi Yehuda’s] maidservant was sweeping the house; [seeing] some young weasels lying there, she made to sweep them away. “Let them be,” he said to her; “It is written, ‘And his tender mercies are over all his works.’” It was said [in Heaven], “Since he is compassionate, let us be compassionate to him.”

Rabbi Yehuda quotes the same verse (Psalms 145:9) that Rav Hirsch expounded upon, and has mercy on the young animals in his home. For this, his suffering is finally taken away. If even one little remark to an animal is worth thirteen years of suffering, how much more so if an animal is swung around wildly, then slaughtered needlessly – which is precisely what happens with kapparot. (It has also been pointed out that chickens used in kapparot are usually starving and thirsty, and often have their limbs dislocated or bones broken during the procedure.)

Idolatrous Practices

Lastly, kapparot appears to be connected with various idolatrous practices and non-Jewish customs. The Ramban, among others, considered it darkei emori, the way of idolaters. The Shulchan Arukh, the central halachic text of Judaism, is also staunchly opposed to kapparot, and its author, Rabbi Yosef Karo, called it a “foolish custom”.

Many modern-day authorities, too, from across the Torah-observant world, have been vocally against kapparot. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik and the entire Brisker rabbinic lineage before him opposed the custom, considering it irrational. The rabbi of Beit El and rosh yeshiva of Ateret Yerushalaim, Shlomo Chaim Aviner, a prominent authority within the Dati Leumi community, has described it as a “superstition”. And the former Sephardic Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv, Chaim David HaLevy, beautifully wrote in his Aseh Lekha Rav:

Why should we, specifically on the eve of the holy day of Yom Kippur, be cruel to animals for no reason, and slaughter them without mercy, just as we are about to request compassion for ourselves from the living God?

Kapparot with Money

While it is clearly evident that one should completely avoid kapparot with chickens, some might argue that it is still worth doing kapparot with money. The problem is that the procedure and text are still the same: waving coins or bills over one’s head, stating that the money serves as an atonement, and that donating it will save one’s life.

The truth is that there is no need to do this at all, since any giving to charity automatically fulfils a mitzvah, assists in one’s repentance and atonement, and is said to be life-saving. The Talmud famously tells us (Bava Batra 10a) that charity is the greatest of all forces, and quotes the verse in Proverbs that “charity saves from death” (10:2).

Thus, any charitable contribution, at any time of the year, already does what kapparot claims to do. And so, awkwardly waving money around one’s head and reciting the kapparot verses is nothing more than a funny-looking waste of time, associated with a cruel, idolatrous, nonsensical, and nonJewish custom.

In his list of the 613 Torah mitzvot, the Rambam (who was also opposed to kapparot) lists the 185th positive commandment of the Torah as eradicating any traces of idolatry from Israel. Since many great Sages held the view that kapparot is associated with idolatrous ways, including the Ramban, Rashba, and the authoritative Shulchan Arukh, it is undoubtedly a mitzvah to not only avoid kapparot, but to encourage others to abandon this practice, and to expunge it from Judaism.

Wishing you a fulfilling and uplifting Yom Kippur. Gmar Chatima Tova!

Tisha B’Av: Why Are We Still Mourning?

This week’s Torah portion is Devarim, which begins the fifth and final book of the Torah. This book (Deuteronomy), is written from the perspective of Moses, and summarizes much of what the Torah discussed earlier. At the same time, it also introduces many new mitzvot, and reveals deeper insights into the Torah’s previous narratives. For example, while the book of Numbers told us that Moses was forbidden to enter the Holy Land because he disobeyed God in striking the rock, here we are told that Moses was forbidden to enter the Land because of the incident of the Spies! (1:22-38) How do we reconcile these differences? The answer can actually be found in next week’s parasha, Va’etchanan.

Va’etchanan (literally “and I beseeched”) describes how Moses begged God to allow him to enter the Holy Land. The Talmud (Berachot 32b) states that Moses prayed so much that God actually relented and forgave him for striking the rock. However, it would have been wrong for Moses to enter the Holy Land at that time, considering that the rest of the men were condemned to perish in the Wilderness because of the sin of the spies. After all, Moses was their leader. Could a shepherd abandon his flock? Would a captain abandon his sinking ship? So, Moses didn’t enter the land not because of the rock, but because of the spies.

'Destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem' by Francesco Hayez (1867)

‘Destruction of the Temple of Jerusalem’ by Francesco Hayez (1867)

This is all the more pertinent now with Tisha B’Av right around the corner. Tisha B’Av commemorates the destruction of both Holy Temples in Jerusalem, along with a handful of other tragedies said to have happened on, or around, that date – the ninth of the month of Av. According to tradition, the origins of Tisha B’Av lie in the incident of the spies. It was on that day that the spies returned from the land of Israel, and reported negatively about the people’s chances of conquering the land. The faithless nation feared and cried needlessly on that day so, it is said, God subsequently gave the nation many good reasons to truly fear and cry on that day throughout history.

The Problem with the 9th of Av

There are many problems with this classic narrative. First of all, why would God punish generations far in the future for the sins of that one generation long ago? Deuteronomy 24:16 itself states clearly that “Parents shall not be put to death because of their children, nor children because of their parents. Each person shall be put to death for their own crime.” While the Torah does also mention a number of times that God “carries over the iniquity of the fathers onto the children to the third and fourth generations”, the phrase concludes by saying this is only true to those that “hate Him”. In any case, it is only to the third and fourth generations, not millennia into the future! Even so, the Talmud (Makkot 24a) says the prophet Ezekiel came and repealed this divine decree anyway:

Said Rabbi Yose bar Chanina, “Moses pronounced four decrees upon Israel, which four prophets came and cancelled.”
…Moses said, “carries over the iniquity of the fathers onto the children…” (Exodus 34:7) Ezekiel came and cancelled it: “The one who sins will die.” (Ezekiel 18:14)

'The Spies With The Grapes Of The Promised Land' by Nicolas Poussin (1664)

‘The Spies With The Grapes Of The Promised Land’ by Nicolas Poussin (1664)

Second of all, did the spies really return on the 9th of Av? The Talmud (Ta’anit 29a) calculates that the spies went forth on the 29th of Sivan and returned forty days later on the 9th of Av. However, the Torah tells us that the spies went to Israel at the start of the grape harvest (Numbers 13:20) and the same tractate of Talmud (Ta’anit 30b) states that the grape harvest season lasted from the 15th of Av until Yom Kippur! How could the spies have returned on the 9th of Av when the grape harvest only began on the 15th? (A simple Google search reveals that the ideal time for grape harvest is September-October, which is right between the 15th of Av and Yom Kippur.)

On the same note, when exactly were the Temples destroyed? The Tanakh tells us that “in the fifth month, on the seventh day of the month, which was the nineteenth year of King Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, came Nebuzaradan, the captain of the guard, a servant of the king of Babylon, to Jerusalem. And he burned the house of Hashem, and the king’s house…” (II Kings 25:8-9) This verse suggests the First Temple was destroyed on the 7th of Av.

Another verse in the Tanakh tells us that “in the fifth month, in the tenth day of the month, which was the nineteenth year of King Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, came Nebuzaradan, the captain of the guard, who stood before the king of Babylon, to Jerusalem; and he burned the house of Hashem, and the king’s house…” (Jeremiah 52:12-13) The verse is nearly identical, except that this one says Nebuzaradan came on the 10th and destroyed the Temple.

We have the 7th of Av and the 10th of Av, but no 9th! The Talmud (Ta’anit 29a) notes this contradiction and tries to reconcile it this way: “On the seventh the heathens entered the Temple and ate therein and desecrated it throughout the seventh and eighth, and towards dusk of the ninth they set fire to it and it continued to burn the whole of that day [the tenth].” Rabbi Yochanan goes on to say that if it were up to him, the mourning day would be the 10th of Av, not the 9th, since this is when the Temple was mostly destroyed.

And what about the Second Temple? Josephus lived through its destruction, and later wrote about it in detail. He says that it was destroyed on the 10th of Av, and writes that the Jews mourn its destruction on the same day that they mourn the destruction of the First Temple. However, he seems to admit that he is uncertain about the exact dates that the Temples fell.

What does the Talmud say? It, too, is uncertain, but concludes that since “good things tend to happen on good days, and bad things on bad days,” it is assumed that the Second Temple was destroyed on the same day as the First Temple!

Postponing, Abolishing, or Redefining?

This year, Tisha B’Av falls on Shabbat, so the fast is postponed, appropriately, to the 10th. While Rabbi Yochanan felt that the 10th is the correct day to fast anyway, Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi – the great redactor of the Mishnah – wanted to have the fast of Tisha B’Av abolished completely! Some say this was only when Tisha B’Av falls on Shabbat and needs to be postponed, while others say he wanted it gone entirely (Megillah 5b).

This idea has been echoed in modern times. The primary reason for mourning on Tisha B’Av is because of Jerusalem’s destruction and the Jewish people’s exile. Today, the Jewish people have returned to the Holy Land and have rebuilt Jerusalem. While there’s no Temple just yet, we are free to travel to, and settle in, the Holy City whenever we wish. Why are we still mourning?

Perhaps Rabbi Yehudah felt the same way. In his day, Jews had also returned to Jerusalem and enjoyed relatively good terms with the Romans. Rabbi Yehudah himself was friends with the Caesar known in the Talmud as ‘Antoninus’ (possibly the Emperor Marcus Aurelius, or maybe a local Roman governor).

Meanwhile, far worse tragedies have befallen the Jewish people since then: crusades, inquisitions, pogroms, the Holocaust, and the list goes on. Why focus on the temples and Jerusalem when there are more recent, greater tragedies? Indeed, former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin intended to combine all the days of commemoration, and move Holocaust Remembrance Day and Israel’s Memorial Day to Tisha B’Av.

Perhaps this is what Tisha B’Av should be: one day to remember all of the suffering that has troubled the Jewish people, and all the suffering that continues to plague the world. A day to remind us that Mashiach has not come yet, the Temple is not yet rebuilt, and the world is not yet whole. A day to ask ourselves: what exactly are we doing to hasten the arrival of that magnificent, forthcoming time? What are we doing that will finally put an end to all the mourning? Tisha B’Av should be a day not about drowning in the sad tears of the past, but about actively working towards the happy tears of the future.

And this is precisely what Rabbi Akiva told his colleagues when they saw the ruins of the Temple. While Rabban Gamliel, Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah, and Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananiah immediately fell into a bout of weeping, Rabbi Akiva was laughing. Surprised, they asked him to explain himself. He told them that while they were dwelling on the destruction of the first and second temples, he was dwelling on the vision of the coming Third Temple. The rabbis responded – and with this the tractate ends – “Akiva, you have consoled us! Akiva, you have consoled us!”